When Hurricane Irma hit Virgin Gorda with full force on September 6, my husband and I had to say goodbye to the island we’ve called home for the past year. Coincidentally we were already on a trip to the US to visit family before we knew how bad Irma was going to be and didn’t have to face the nightmare of either evacuating or riding it out. Others weren’t so lucky and are still dealing with recovery efforts and will be for quite some time. The decision to move on and stay in the US left me feeling very conflicted. I feel guilty for not being there to help, but fortunate for being safe. I’ve been wanting to do a post to honor my time in the Caribbean and bring some closure to that chapter of my life. It took me longer than I wanted simply because we’ve been so busy traveling and settling back into our home in the US that my blog kind of got put on the back burner for a bit.
Although I typically try to make things with as many local ingredients as possible, this time I made an exception considering I needed tropical ingredients to make something Caribbean. Originally I wanted to make a chayote squash salad because they were always available at the market on our island. They may not be local to the Caribbean themselves, but I was going to add other ingredients to put a Caribbean spin on it. So, off to Whole Foods I went, assuming I could find anything I needed there because, well, c’mon, it’s Whole Foods. I had a good chuckle to myself when the produce stocker informed me they were out of chayote and I realized I had to improvise and make do with the other items they had. Oh, the irony! For a year this was life – getting creative with what the island markets had and missing the bounty that US stores hold. And now I was back in the land of plenty and the problem was reversed. So, I looked around at my options and decided to pick up some plantains and tamarind pods. Plantains are grown locally in the Caribbean and tamarind is very popular there and always in stock. It’s something I was always curious about and wanted to learn to prepare and just never got around to it, so, no time like the present!
Tamarind is a legume that grows in pods with a bark-like exterior shell and seeds inside surrounded by sticky flesh. That sticky flesh is what you want to harvest out of the pod. After soaking the peeled fruit in some water, the flesh easily pulls away from the seeds. Once pushed through a fine mesh strainer, it resembles apple butter and is ready to use. It has a unique sweet and sour flavor that lends itself well to a variety of dishes. Although you can buy ready-made tamarind paste, I encourage you to try making your own from scratch, not only because homemade almost always tastes better, but it’s also rewarding to learn how to make something new.
I prepared the plantain chips three ways: dehydrated, baked, and fried. They each have good qualities, although my personal favorite is fried. I encourage you to try them all and find your favorite. The dehydrated ones came out just as crisp as the fried ones with the bonus of being fat-free, requiring very little effort, and there’s no chance of burning. The baked ones came out crisp as long as they have some oil on them. I don’t recommend baking without either spraying or brushing some oil on them first or they’ll come out softer than desired. Frying produces a nice even crisp with a more well-rounded toasty flavor. I used coconut oil when frying and baking and sprinkled sea salt on all three methods. Nothing more is needed and they’re delicious on their own, but I urge you to make the accompanying tamarind dip as it is equally delicious not only with these plantain chips but other chips, crackers, and veggie crudités also. Although I chose to keep my chips simple so as not to overshadow the flavor of the dip, you could add additional spices to season the chips if desired.
1 unripe (green) plantain for each method (dehydrated, baked, or fried)
coconut oil (1-2 tablespoons for baked or 1/4 cup for fried)
sea salt, just enough for sprinkling
Slice plantain as thinly as possible, using a mandolin preferably. This can be done in rounds or long strips. For dehydrated chips, place slices in a single layer on dehydrator tray and sprinkle with sea salt. Dehydrate at 135° for two hours, then flip and continue dehydrating for two more hours. For baked chips, preheat oven to 375°. Place slices in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet and brush with a bit of liquefied coconut oil. Sprinkle with sea salt and bake for about 15 minutes, flipping halfway through. For fried chips, heat 1/4 cup of coconut oil in a skillet over low-medium heat. Test oil by dropping a bit of plantain in it and if it sizzles, it’s hot enough. Drop plantain slices in hot oil and fry for about two minutes per side or until lightly browned and crisp. Remove from pan and place on paper towels or a paper bag laid flat on countertop to drain excess oil. Sprinkle with sea salt while still hot. Once cooled, store in an airtight container.
Creamy Tamarind Dip
1 lb box tamarind pods
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup raw cashews
2 pitted dates
1 chili pepper, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
zest and juice of 1 lime
Crack open tamarind pods and remove outer shells and veiny fibers surrounding flesh. Discard shells and veins and place what remains, which is fleshy covered seeds in the shape of a pod, in a bowl of hot water. Soak in water for 30 minutes. Drain pods. Working over a fine mesh sieve placed in a bowl, pull as much pulp away from the seeds as possible, discarding the seeds. Use a plastic scraper to push pulp through sieve into the bowl below. This will ensure a smooth paste and separate any bits of leftover shell or seed. The final result should resemble apple butter. Next, place the tamarind paste, which should equal about one cup, along with all the remaining dip ingredients into a high-powered blender and blend on high until smooth and creamy. Add a splash of water if needed to get the mixture to blend completely and achieve your desired consistency. Serve with plantain chips or any other chips, crackers, or crudités. Store leftovers in refrigerator in an airtight container.